LASHIO, Myanmar — Hundreds of Buddhist men on motorcycles, screaming and waving iron rods and sticks, roamed the streets of a town in northeastern Myanmar on Wednesday in a new wave of violence targeting Muslims. At least one person died and four others were injured, state television said.
A mosque, a Muslim school and other buildings were burned in the two days of rioting. Many Muslims stayed locked inside their homes and shops remained shuttered in Lashio town, near the border with China, the latest region to fall prey to the country’s spreading religious violence.
The flare-up in Lashio reinforced doubts that President Thein Sein’s government can or will act to contain the violence and crack down on racial and religious intolerance.
The rioting was sparked Tuesday by reports that a Muslim man had splashed gasoline on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire. The man was arrested and the woman was hospitalized with bad burns.
Mobs took revenge by burning down the mosque and other buildings on Tuesday, but caused no reported casualties. Calm appeared to return as troops were deployed on the streets and authorities banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed an overnight curfew.
But on Wednesday several hundred angry young men drove motorcycles through Lashio’s downtown area. A Buddhist monk was seated on the back of one of the motorcycles, waving a stick.
On another street, a crowd threw rocks at buildings. Smoke billowed in another area, and local politician Sai Myint Maung said a movie theater had been burned and there were rumors that more troublemakers were gathered on the outskirts of the town.
Wary Muslims hid in their homes, fearing the kind of brutal violence that claimed dozens of lives earlier this year in other parts of the country, and the large-scale attacks that killed hundreds in western Myanmar last year.
“I never expected that such racial violence would erupt in Lashio,” Sai Myint Maung said. “Our small town is multiethnic and we have lived in peace for a long time.”
A local freelance journalist was attacked as he photographed a mob ransacking some shops.
“The mob accused me of recording their act and asked me to surrender the camera. I handed over the memory card and I was hit on my head with an iron pipe, causing a gash on my head,” Khun Zaw Oo said. He said he managed to flee but a companion also holding a camera was attacked and badly injured.
The government appealed for calm.
“Damaging religious buildings and creating religious riots is inappropriate for the democratic society we are trying to create,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on his Facebook page. He said “two religious buildings and some shops” in Lashio were burned, without specifying whether they were Muslim or Buddhist.
“Any criminal act will be dealt with according to the law,” Ye Htut said.
State TV said a 48-year-old man had been arrested for throwing gasoline on a 24-year-old Buddhist woman and setting her on fire. It identified the man as an Indian Muslim but did not explain the reason for the attack.
The man was charged with causing grievous injuries and arson, as well as drug possession due to stimulants found in his pocket, the TV report said. The woman was being treated for burns on her chest, back and hands.
National police said nine people were arrested for involvement in the two days of violence, but didn’t say if they were Buddhists or Muslims.
Minority Muslims have been the main victims of Myanmar’s religious violence, but so far there have been no criminal trials of members of the Buddhist majority, raising questions over whether Muslims can find justice.
The sectarian violence first flared in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds of people died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that drove about 140,000 others, mostly Muslims, from their homes. Most are still living in refugee camps.
This month, authorities in two areas of Rakhine announced a regulation limiting Rohingya families to two children. The policy drew sharp criticism from Muslim leaders, rights groups and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell on Tuesday said the U.S. opposes coercive birth limitation policies, and called on Myanmar “to eliminate all such policies without delay.”
The clashes had seemed confined to the Rakhine region, but in late March, similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people. Earlier this month, a court sentenced seven Muslims from Meikthila to prison terms for their role in the violence.
Several other towns in central Myanmar experienced less deadly violence, mostly involving the torching of Muslim businesses and mosques.
Muslims account for about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people. Anti-Muslim sentiment is closely tied to nationalism and the dominant Buddhist religion, so leaders have been reluctant to speak up for the unpopular minority.
Thein Sein’s administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims. He vowed last week during a trip to the U.S. that all perpetrators of the sectarian violence would be brought to justice.